One of the great things about digital media is that it’s a lot easier and faster for the publisher to open up a dialogue with the public: updating a problematic sentence on a web page is simple and guarantees that future readers will see the corrected version, whereas the corrections in a newspaper, for example, are less likely to be seen by everyone. Like all other media outlets, we’ve published articles that have contained either factual errors or displayed a lack of sophisticated critical thought (or both) and even though we always try our best to make sure this doesn’t happen, nobody’s perfect.
We’ve been at this for more than a couple of years now and have had our fair share of artists and companies reach out to us to talk about our coverage (or on one occasion, lack thereof), and while everyone’s different we’ve noticed certain attitudes that can make the whole correspondence either productive and positive or tense and unpleasant. Today we’re going to look at a few real-life examples of artists/companies reaching out to us in response to our reviews and examine what aspects of those experiences either made them either positive or negative. These experiences were not all fun, but we did learn from them and so we have made a code of conduct for ourselves as a guideline to ideally prevent more negative experiences but also to establish a common ground between us and artists/companies so that we are all on the same page. In many of the examples that we discuss here personal details will be changed or omitted altogether, but we promise these have all actually happened.
Let’s start with the positive. Nobody likes hearing that they’re wrong, and we’re no different. There have been a few experiences however that ultimately led to stronger articles and perspectives as a result of artist intervention. The first instance that comes to mind would be our most recent example: our review of the first weekend of this year’s Fresh Meat Festival. As much of a generalization as it may sound, the organizers of the festival did everything right in contacting us: they used their official email account to email us, maintained a professional tone throughout the conversation, and made their issues with our review clear. We sat down for an informal discussion with them, where both sides made it clear that the issue was with the review rather than anybody as a person.
They had two main issues: the first was that our assessment of the diversity in this year’s festival line-up was based on a perusal of the artists’ headshots, which was a genuinely short-sighted move on our part and something we had absolutely no problem with fixing in our review (we are happy to say that the experience has made us much more conscious of our own internal biases and that we will continue working to overcome them). The second was less controversial and had more to do with focus: the Festival seemed to expect a review that addressed all five performance pieces, while the review they got was more of an assessment of the evening as a whole with some pieces getting less attention than others.
Our perspective was that as a curated festival, Fresh Meat doesn’t require an introspective analysis of each piece in the same way that Fringe shows do. We saw the forest, they wanted us to focus on the trees. Their reasons are valid: since Fresh Meat aims to serve underrepresented communities through theatrical performance, securing as much media coverage as possible for each artist is clearly within their best interest. We know now for next year what Fresh Meat hopes to get out of their media coverage (at least as far as we’re concerned), and opening up this dialogue has impressed upon us the need to maintain friendly and consistent communication between producers, artists, and critics.
One way producers and critics can communicate information indirectly is through a media kit. Ideally, a media kit contains a few pictures, a document with the information you would usually put on a press release, and any other production info you don’t want people to miss. Media kits are a valuable source of information, but sometimes even these have to be taken with a grain of salt. Emerging companies that are on their first Fringe often submit only the bare minimum for their media kits, so for those of us who like to include information like the names of the performers in our reviews we sometimes have to go sifting through Facebook events and the like to get what we’re looking for. Even when the information submitted is exactly right, mistakes can still happen so it’s important to check once everything is online just to be sure. One of our more positive experiences stemmed from a local director whose show description in her media kit was accidentally pasted over with other information.
The show was based on an original text, however the media kit stressed that the script was written by an emerging UK playwright. To the director’s credit, when she contacted us to point out the factual inaccuracies that came about as a result, her only issues were with those inaccuracies, rather than the overall review, which was less than positive. We later found out that the show description was for a completely different show, which the same critic saw a few days later. This particular kind of mistake is usually not an issue. It is important, however, to keep in mind that we work with the information we have and we’re inclined to trust what’s been published for our use.
Another experience of ours with a different theatre festival was less of a rewarding experience. One particular show relied almost exclusively on technical elements that the producing company didn’t want reviewers to mention for the sake of spoiling the experience for future audience members. Avoiding spoilers in a review is nothing new though generally more of a plot thing, but all the same if the company makes their expectations clear then we don’t see any reason not to respect their wishes.
The problem with this particular show was that we were not notified of this until the morning after two of our critics had attended the opening performance and posted their reviews. It wasn’t too late for us to change them, but the timing struck us as unprofessional, to say the least. Further complicating matters, the festival’s media contact made only limited efforts to talk with us about the issue both through email and in person at the festival, which was frustrating given that the producing company never directly contacted us on the matter. Whether the original delay in communication was due to the company or the festival, it did prompt us to set certain rules for ourselves in that we will try to open up stronger lines of communication before the fact so that this doesn’t happen again.
The rest of our examples are experiences with individual artists at Fringe over the last few years. Fringe is both an exciting and stressful experience for artists: since word-of-mouth and reviews are so important to the success of shows (especially new ones), the need to get your show reviewed is pretty urgent, not to mention positively reviewed so you can use it as promotional material. It can be stressful for critics too (or at least for us) since the priority is to cover as many shows as possible. The turnaround time for posting reviews is also much shorter than the rest of the year: when you’re reviewing 6 shows a day, you really want to be caught up from yesterday before seeing 6 more. The Fringe also asks that we post reviews for a show in time for its next performance, which is sometimes less that 24 hours. We try of course to adhere to this, but whenever we can’t it isn’t because we’re intentionally withholding the review.
This year we ended up reviewing 47 out of 57 shows with only 3 critics, which we’re pretty proud of (and one of our critics was producing/writing/acting in a show, at that). We haven’t yet managed to review an entire Fringe (but it’s definitely a goal) and with a limited number of reviewers we have to prioritize what we think needs to be covered. We usually keep improv-based shows on the back burner (improv is a little more challenging to review since the show is completely different each time, but if there are any improv people out there who want to write to/for us about how to do it right, shout at us), and unless there has been major reworking we also tend to put shows that we’ve already reviewed lower on the to-do list (We do like to revisit shows that have evolved over time: Ethel, DEB Talks, and Space Jameration all premiered at Fresh Meat and later came to Fringe in expanded hour-long versions, The Sink and Hootenanny were at Fringe two years ago and we revisited them this year. Not all the changes for these shows were for the better, but we have a clear interest in following Ottawa-based artists and shows).
A couple years ago, a touring artist came to Fringe with the same show as the year before- though she did advertise that new material had been added. We’d already reviewed the show the previous year (not only was it a positive review, but they had even quoted it on their poster for the second year), so we chose to put it on the “see it if we can” list and didn’t think much of it until the artist messaged us on Facebook towards the end of the festival. Messaging critics directly to request they review your show is not in itself unreasonable, but the passive-aggressive tone of the message suggesting that we had “completely ignored” her show was off-putting to us. We reposted the review from the year before, but if she returns to Ottawa we’re unsure where to put her on our list of priorities.
We have made some major changes to our show this year and were hoping we would get reviewed by your staff! We didn’t expect to be completely ignored by New Ottawa Critics this year. Would you consider re posting one of the many great reviews you gave us last year? It would certainly be appreciated!”
Apart from the inaccurate suggestion that the NOC has “staff” (i.e. our critics do not receive regular paycheques), it’s worth mentioning that artists are also able to repost old reviews online. The “echo chamber” nature of social media means that usually they’re reaching out to people already following them, but as it happens the Fringe website, on the page for each show, aggregates all online reviews. We are not the only people who can repost our content, although we understand that who shares an article can affect who actually reads it.
We can’t cover all the Fringe shows but we expect to be able to discuss the content of the shows we do see. Relating back somewhat to the spoiler discussion from before, we reviewed an autobiographical one-man show discussing among other things the artist’s struggles with their mental health. After posting our review the artist messaged us asking to remove the references to the state of his mental health as he hadn’t fully revealed those issues to family members and he hoped to avoid them finding out as indirectly as reading it in an online review.
We sympathized, but we have to make this clear: if you include information about unresolved personal issues in your show, that is your problem and no one else’s. Once it’s out there you can’t expect people not to talk about it online or offline. It turned out that there were handbills in the venue specifically asking the audience not to discuss those aspects, although our critic never received one (they were handing them out at the door of the venue after the critic was already inside having seen another show in the previous time slot). We were arguably in the wrong, but there is certainly more than one way to communicate to critics if there’s something you don’t want mentioned in a review. The online media kit, for example, is the main source of information for most critics during Fringe. It’s entirely up to the artist what goes into their media kit (the Fringe only posts it online), so if there’s something you think the media should know, put it there. The other reason this artist didn’t want us to mention the mental health elements was more artistic:
“I really do not want anyone to know it’s about [problematic but not wholly debilitating disorder]. It is supposed to be guessable – the title, the intro, the structure of the narrative, my general demeanour[sic] – but the big reveal comes at the end for a reason… I want my audience to know as little as possible about what’s coming so they get a similar experience to the storyteller who also didn’t know what was coming at the time of the tale.”
He was apparently unfamiliar with the concept of the unreliable narrator.
We have three more stories, but for the sake of time let’s compare two of them since they complement each other nicely. Both are solo shows, both were at the same Fringe in the same venue, and both shows were reviewed by the same critic. One was reviewed positively and one negatively, and in both cases the artist reacted online.
The first of these, the show that was positively reviewed, was something of a best-case scenario. The artist personally messaged our critic on Facebook after the review was posted, thanking the critic not just for a positive review but also for engaging thoughtfully with the content. It seems the artist was having trouble deciding what the heart of his show was, and he found our review helpful with one of its final sentences where the critic tried to sum up the show in a single sentence. We were touched and eagerly anticipate seeing him onstage again. Of course we prefer email communication, but since the artist’s intentions were clearly not malicious it didn’t seem like a reasonable complaint.
The other show stands in pretty stark comparison. The critic saw no apparent through-line in the show and was also confused by its unique genre description in the Fringe programme. The review was mostly written to this effect, and while we can’t blame an artist for reacting to an unfavourable review either in person, by contacting us, or even posting in the comments under the review (we’re only human, after all), there are ways to be constructive about it. This artist chose to react by leaving a comment, although there wasn’t much about his approach that could be called constructive.
“Just to be clear, this show, as a ‘[name of “genre”],’ is designed as a series of vignettes held together by a theme and a loose narrative. There’s a book about God that follows the same format. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s a classic.
Anyway, I feel bad that your focus on something that wasn’t there led you to not enjoy the show as much as everyone else in the audience.”
The artist could have compared their definition of their chosen genre to the critic’s analysis, but instead merely stated it and invoked the Bible to prove his point (the Bible was thematically linked to this show, but the comparison was so weakly drawn out that the critic didn’t pick up on it). In the absence of any criticism of our criticism, the overall tone comes across as just petty and bitter.
Now, for the last but certainly not the least of our experiences: we started with Fresh Meat taking issue with a review and and going about it in the best possible way, so now we’ll bookend our article by looking at an artist taking issue with a review and going about it in the worst possible way. The funny thing is that in both cases we were trying to be sensitive about issues relating to cultural identity and checking our white privilege. Fresh Meat saw that we were trying to get on the same page as them and left their disagreement at the professional level, while this artist… didn’t.
After we had posted our review for this specific show, one of the two artists (for the sake of avoiding awkward sentences, let’s call them Taylor) emailed the critic directly taking issue with it. Professional channel, of course, but the content of the email was less professional and belied a truly bewildering misinterpretation of some of the critic’s points: saying, for example, that our critic was clearly unprofessional for bringing up the other performer’s problematic performance history (this was our first experience with Taylor, but we’d seen the other performer’s work before). The email included a list of 11 points dictating what steps we should take to rectify the situation, which we would love to publish here in its entirety but can’t because a) it was really very long, and b) it includes too many identifying details. We can however post the ultimatum they gave us at end of the email:
”Due to these actions, the options needed for accountability going forward are as follows. 1. Use these 11 points provided to edit the article and add addendum’s [sic] giving proper credit for the edited points, and a public apology stating the reason for the edits and the harms perpetuated in the article. 2. Remove the article and issue a public apology, stating the harms perpetuated in the article. Both options require proper crediting and citing of the original list written by myself in the original email. We have given the resources for you to pursue both options, and have support of Pat [Gauthier] and the Ottawa Fringe Festival. We are all available to discuss these options going forward.
If we do not hear from you in the next few days, we will pursue further action for accountability.”
There are a few problems with just this section of what Taylor sent us, besides the thinly-veiled threat of “further action for accountability”, whatever that means. Since they had already cc’d one of the main Fringe producers we then had to open communication with him on the matter. It wasn’t even his responsibility: Taylor could have included the Fringe’s media coordinator on the email instead but chose to go straight to the top in a move that was almost certainly meant to intimidate us. We regret having indirectly dragged Pat into it, but his balanced approach to this situation was both professional and admirable.
Taylor and their artistic partner were not, in fact, available to discuss their options going forward. We sent a formal response (which took us 6 days to write and went through 3 different editors) to which there still has been no reply, and there was no active effort on the part of this company to meet in person. We did change some details in our review and credited Taylor with the specific edits we felt held merit, but we actively chose not to take down the review nor did we feel it necessary (or productive) to offer up a public apology for “perpetuating harms” that we honestly felt was a disingenuous accusation.
Taylor’s demanding tone showed that they didn’t understand the basic symbiotic relationship between art and criticism, and as a result the entire interaction with them seemed more like attempted censorship than a rational conversation about how the critic may have missed some nuances to their show. The lack of cooperation on their part painted them as unable to accept negative criticism, and like we said before, your personal issues are not our problem.
At the end of the festival they went back to their home city in another province where they didn’t have to worry about the consequences of their actions here in Ottawa. In trying to follow up with this issue we have seen that, in a few different media outlets in their home city, Taylor has chosen to directly and explicitly call out the Ottawa theatre environment and its theatre critics for its perceived racism and that the capital city just “wasn’t ready” for their Fringe show.
Artists disparaging critics is nothing new, but we don’t understand why Taylor would suddenly choose to stop replying to the email thread with us when they initiated it and deemed it so important that they managed to email us 5 times in the span of a week before we managed to even get one response finished (again, 6 days, several pages, and 3 editors. When someone’s calling you out for lack of professionalism, you can’t afford to slip up). We wish them the best with whatever their mission in life is, but if they return to the Ottawa Fringe we hope they understand why we may choose not to review their work.
There are as many ways to respond to a review as there are artists. There’s no one hard and fast way to respond: we’ve had lovely Facebook messages and frustrating emails, for one. The common ground between our positive experiences has been pretty simple: the artists/companies understood that we are people too, that we are looking to be held to a professional standard, and that we do this because we love it. Our mission is not to slander anyone or their work. We pride ourselves on being able to offer thorough and insightful criticism of the theatre scene in Ottawa. We can make mistakes and absolutely appreciate being corrected on factual inaccuracies. Opinions are a different matter: we try to maintain as objective a tone as we can although we know it’s not really possible to be completely objective, especially in the arts. As many concrete examples as a review can give, there will still be a kernel of opinion at its heart. We’re not saying we can’t be persuaded, but at the end of the day we still need to respect one another’s opinions. In this brave new world of digital media the power dynamic between artist and critic is much more balanced, and we have to keep this in mind and be respectful of each other.
Edited by Caitlin Gowans and Brie McFarlane